When the San Francisco Chronicle decided to replace food critic Michael Bauer, I wasn’t alone in thinking “It’s about time.” After all, the New York Times had six food critics during Bauer’s 32-year reign. It was no secret that most restaurateurs knew what Bauer looked like, that he had become chummy with chefs like Thomas Keller, and that his boyfriend of three decades, Michael Murphy, used their relationship to cozy up to gastronomic luminaries for financial gain.
As the culinary world entered the #MeToo era, with prominent local chefs and and restaurant owners accused of sexual harassment, it also became clear that Bauer was ill-equipped to deal with the new normal. He took heat from websites like Eater for even considering establishments of the accused for his famous Top 100 list (“Michael Bauer still not sure if he should review restaurants run by bad men”). Bauer also struggled to explain his position in the April 2018 Chronicle essay “Faded Luster,” which felt like a set-up for the newspaper’s politically correct management to dismiss him. So when that happened, it was no surprise the Chronicle wanted to replace Bauer with a millennial — preferably female, and not white. Enter Soleil Ho, called by the Washington Post “a young, queer woman of color” and a self-described “food, culture, and travel writer and the host of two podcasts . . . Racist Sandwich and Popaganda.”
CHEZ PANISSE? PSHAW!
From her first review in February 2019, it was clear Ho wanted to be different. She dumped Bauer’s star ranking system and wrote scathingly of critical darling Chez Panisse, owned by Bauer pal Alice Waters (“I found the presentation of everything sort of thoughtless.”). But it was in Ho’s September 2019 review of Le Colonial where the difference between her culturally appropriate vision and Bauer’s purely critical viewpoint was most striking. Bauer’s last review of Le Colonial in February 2017 garnered 2.5 stars and featured descriptions of the dishes (“The green papaya salad in a sweet-and-sour dressing was spooned into a purple banana blossom, then garnished with a bouquet of basil and three skewers of tamarind-glazed prawns.”).
In Ho’s September 2019 review, it takes her 1,099 words to get to the food. In fact, only 142 words out of a rambling 1,983 talk about the meal. The rest of the article is devoted to why the restaurant shouldn’t exist. She interviews local historian Erica J. Peters, who “has studied the impact of French colonization on Vietnamese foodways” but instead discusses stereotypes in films that “dramatize Franco-Vietnamese relations in steamy scenes of lovemaking in sweaty, mahogany-framed environs.” Ho also veers off to “one of the country’s oldest Far East-theme restaurants,” Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood. There, she dines with author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who delves into musicals like Miss Saigon that are “powered by white people at the most elite levels.” Throughout the tortured prose, Ho relentlessly swats at the chips on her shoulder, from her name (“I had trouble reconciling the France in my mother’s mind with the one that had transformed her country into Indochina”) to what her role might have been in the 1850s (“I don’t want to go back to that time and place, to presume that I would be the person served and not the one doing the serving.”).
While Ho frets about cultural appropriation in nearly every column, she sometimes contradicts her mantra. Take, for example, Bauer’s buddy Thomas Keller. I’ve interviewed Keller a number of times, and I can confirm he’s white as can be. But Ho’s review wasn’t disdainful of that fact. The headline read, “Thomas Keller’s Mexican restaurant, La Calenda, is cultural appropriation done right,” and Ho goes on to say, “Though this may shock some of you, I really like La Calenda . . . I think it is certainly an example of culinary appropriation. And I think that’s fine.”
For her 2019 Top 100 Restaurants, Ho considered sexual harassment allegations as well as “thoughtful leadership, above-and-beyond worker benefits and wage parity,” but she included The French Laundry, which is being sued by a former employee who claims she was denied a job transfer and ultimately let go because she was pregnant, and Benu, where chef/owner and French Laundry alum Corey Lee allegedly broke the nose of a cook in his kitchen. If Ho is really serious about ethics, she also needs to do her homework before reviewing those hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants and taquerias, where employees are often poorly treated. “Of the more than 1,700 restaurant industry cases, the vast majority of victims involved immigrants, recruited from Mexico, Central America and East and Southeast Asia. Nearly one in five was a minor. They included cooks, wait staff and bussers at restaurants, food trucks, buffets, and taquerias,” according to a 2017 report by Polaris, an organization that fights human trafficking. Yet Eater, which cheers Ho’s cultural correctness and skewers Bauer for being a #MeToo luddite, included perennial hipster favorite La Taqueria in its Fall 2019 “38 Essential San Francisco Restaurants” list, despite the fact owners were fined $600,000 for labor violations and subsequently fired employees who filed the complaint.
THE PROPER WHINE
Recently the Chronicle debuted a new initiative called The Culture Desk, which editor Sarah Feldberg said would “give voice to common frustrations, identify shifting norms . . . and explore the ever-evolving ways that technology, family, wealth, identity and sex impact our lives.” Seems like the perfect place for Ho to preach, and indeed, she contributed 1,436 words titled, “Jackets required for gentlemen — but who’s a ‘gentleman’?” where she asked burning questions like, “what do you wear when you straddle the line — when you’re a masculine-of-center nonbinary person or a trans person who struggles with passing as your gender?” Based on the article’s 40 comments — only one which was positive — many readers are growing weary of her work. “Great, now we have a ‘woke’ food critic, where in almost every article ‘she’ (not sure if I’m allowed to assign a gender) opines on a political stance of her own opinion instead of the restaurant food and services,” complained Kid Waco. “Well she is master of pairing whatever is served with the proper whine,” said onkelbob. “I wasn’t a huge fan of Michael Bauer but after Soleil, I am praying for him to come back,” laments JOHN592. But perhaps rkentprice summed it up best: “In what section of the paper can we read about food?”
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